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I’m lucky enough to be in both a real-time and online community that is made of awesome, and one of the awesomest bits is my friend Michel, who shared a bit today on the Googleface about self-compassion.  That is, as another wise woman commented, the ability to treat yourself as you would treat a dear friend, rather than berating yourself.  Also, allowing yourself to have the emotions you’re having without judging or suppressing them.

Naturally, the angle I bring to this is the body.  From years of practice, I now know that the first place to look for how I’m feeling – i.e., emotionally – is to how I’m feeling in my body.  It’s been instructive to get to know what that looks and feels like, and it’s also a super-useful alarm system.  Because boy, is it easier to figure out what I’m feeling physically than emotionally, and if I can start with the body and go from there, it’s kind of a direct route.  And, in the best of circumstances, when I start paying attention to what I’m feeling, keep listening, and trace it, I can figure out what it’s about – and perhaps even solve it in the moment.  It isn’t always solvable, of course, but in my experience, even acknowledging the emotion takes away some of its force, allows it to move so that other things can take its place.

Just yesterday, in fact, I was aware, in the middle of a lovely day when I’d been hiking and eating delicious food and spending time with a dear one, that I felt sad.  I didn’t really know why; all I knew was that I had this little pain in my heart, and my shoulders were curled around me, and my face had that prickly feeling that means if somebody says just the right thing, I’ll start to cry.  A common response in the past might have been, “What the hell’s my problem?” – judge, or else, “Well that’s odd.  On to the next thing” – suppress.

Instead I said, “I’m feeling kind of sad.  I wonder why?”

He held me, and in a little while, as I listened, I was able to identify it – or at least maybe – and begin to talk to him about it.  The content is too personal to go into here, but suffice to say that I was afraid, and vulnerable, and needed to know that he was with me.

And it turned out that not only did the sad feeling dissipate, but I got reassurance that my fears were unfounded.  Acknowledging the emotion, giving it space, and exploring it allowed me to move through it and transform it – and to have an amazingly productive conversation with someone I love.

What might happen if, when you were in conflict with someone, you took a breath, noticed what that breath felt like, and paid attention to what was going on in your body?  A tight chest, shallow breathing?  Muscles clenched, hands in fists?  What does that feel like?  Anger?  Breathe again.  Be with the anger.  Let it move, listen to it, and see what it has to say.  Is it really anger?  Maybe it’s fear, or sorrow.  What does it say to you?  What does it want you to say to the other person?  How can you choose, in this moment, to have compassion for yourself and your authentic emotions, while remaining compassionate for the other, too?

I find that paying attention to the body’s cues, rather than rushing to put a label on an emotion, can be a more productive path.  And because the body always tells the truth, the only trick we have to learn is how to read that truth with a curious and open attitude.  Sometimes it’s easy: I feel sad was pretty clear for me.  Still, when I paid more attention to it and gave it space, it became clear that there was also fear – that the sadness was about worry for a future point, not grounded in what was happening now.  Following the fear brought me to its likely source, and talking it out brought me out of the negative emotion.

As always, I long for your comments.